Why strikes fizzle at Nippon Steel

Steel union militants in many countries occasionally shut down the mills where they work. But when Motoyoshi Arai led a strike in his mill in Japan awhile back, he was forced to settle for exactly what management had offered in the first place. And throughout the strike, the mill kept operating. No labor action has shut it since the 1950s.

Mr. Arai's failure does not prove the Japanese are more docile than Westerners. The difference is that Japan's economic system distributes pay and benefits in proportion to the disruption groups cause, making major strikes unlikely.

Regular Nippon Steel employees at the Kimitsu Works receive benefits that are well known internationally. The company supplies good housing next to the plant for as little as $20 a month. It operates country club and resort facilities for them. They are rarely called employees in Japanese, out often called "sha-in" (company members).

In the mill, however, it is obvious that the Nippon Steel Corporation does not treat everyone as its regular employees. Company members wear silver helmets and everyone else -- including Mr. Arai, who operates a locomotive hauling iron for a leading subcontractor -- wears a yellow helmet.

Yellow-helmeted men get the hard work.Visitors won't see silver-helmeted company members climbing under hot furnaces to clean them or bending over shovels to recondition the tracks where hot metal will flow. Subcontractors do those jobs. Moreover, subcontractors' workers get inferior benefits. Although Mr. Arai's job is among the most crucial and thus best-paying subcontractor jobs in the mill, he gets about 10 percent less money than comparable Nippon Steel workers. His company-supplied apartment is smaller and farther from the plant than theirs, and he cannot use Nippon Steel's famed recreation facilities.

Ironically, "company members" are a minority at Kimitsu. They probably hold fewer than a third of all the mill-related jobs in the Kimitsu area. But they include the people with the most vital skills. And they have little to gain by cooperating with Mr. Arai in a strike. Since the US occupation forced Japanese business to reorganize after World War II, the larger Japanese companies have been run largely to suit their managers and other "company members."

So the interests of the company's regular employees are directly opposed to those of subcontractors. The lower Mr. Arai's wages, the more money Nippon Steel has for its men.

Mr. Arai has been struggling to build his union for nearly a decade. But he thinks Yoshiji Miyata, who until recently headed the Nippon Steel's company-members' union and the Japan Federation of Iron and Steel Workers, is an enemy who helped break the strike he tried to lead.

The union at Mr. Arai's subcontractor, a company called Nittetsu Transportation, struck on its own, without support from regular Nippon Steel employees. "Miyata's elder brother -- he's now in parliament -- came to me and said, "Don't do that; you're causing trouble; don't make strikes,'" Mr. Arai recalled.

Nittetsu Transportation men stood alone against management. But Nippon Steel found ways to move iron around the plant without them. Eventually, Mr. Arai had to end the struggle.

It is unlikely that Mr. Arai's union could have gained much by allying itself with workers at other subcontractors, because Nittetsu Transportation men are an elite among subcontractors, much as Nippon Steel men are an elite among Japan's steelworkers. Workers at strategic subcontractors like Nittetsu Transportation can cause considerable disruption, even if they can't shut down the mill. And they already receive more than other subcontractors.

Mr. Arai says workers at less immediately important subcontractors -- people who perform routine maintenance on machinery trucked to shops outside the mill, for instance, do dirtier work than he, get 10 percent lower salaries, have no company-supplied apartments, and receive few benefits.

Just as the benefits of Nippon Steel's company members depend on the lower wages at all subcontractors, Mr. Arai's benefits depend at least partly on low wages at the smallest subcontractors. Thus any strong coalition of subcontract workers would have difficulty agreeing on demands.

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